Updated Conduit Policy? Worthless!

A Public Works document on Bellingham’s fiber optic network leaves much to be desired.

A Public Works document on Bellingham’s fiber optic network leaves much to be desired.

One of the most frustrating things about dealing with Public Works, as reported to me by many people who have worked on many different issues including transportation, water, broadband, and more, is when the city pretends that you’re making progress and they care, only to later stab citizens in the back and drag things out as long as possible. Even during an emergency. If you continue to hold them accountable, they’ll often go to the ultimate level and create a faux document so they can fool the public into believing that they listened and have made progress. The truth is, no one is going to force them to think differently. Not those pesky citizens and especially not during a pandemic! They’ll show us!

Sadly, I predicted there was a 95% chance they would do this about two years ago in relation to Dig Once when I wrote the article “COB Releases Elementary School Level Dig Once Draft.” I was hoping a new mayor would not tolerate this kind of behavior and demand real progress, but yesterday Public Works Director Eric Johnston released a Faux Conduit Policy that is a “policy” in name only. Amazingly, this document has almost no information in it about how the city installs conduit. Nor are there any clear policy goals. This policy update mostly justifies their current position of not producing a network that meets our needs, with no plans to do so in the near future. They also do not mention plans to provide Open Access or even upgrade the existing network. So why did they produce it? So they could point to it and pretend they have a policy… if anyone asks.

Of course, having predicted this, we provided them with a proper policy in 2018 called the “Community Proposed Dig Once Policy.” It is based on the Mount Vernon Conduit Ordinance and the South San Francisco Dig Once policies. Since these are both successful cities, why reinvent the wheel? Eric Johnston says he reviewed the document but has given no reasons for totally disregarding it. Council Members Lilliquist and Stone are giving it another look. Hopefully, they’ll do this before the council meeting on Monday, 9/14, when Johnston hopes to solidify his virtually worthless document.

The oddities in Johnston’s document would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so dire. Here are a couple. Even though Johnston admitted in front of a PUD special meeting on broadband that Public Works doesn’t even know who is on the network, he shoehorned a comment in this policy update suggesting that the city’s network is considered highly secure. Well, kinda. Since fiber is much more secure than wireless, the only security we can actually rely on is the fact that the city’s fiber is, by default, more secure than wireless. After this meeting, I was concerned about the security on a network that carries all of our police, fire, library and school data, so I checked with the police department. They didn’t know if our public network had ever received a routine security audit, but were going to check into it. It’s been weeks since that conversation, so the answer is probably that they don’t follow the standard practice of hiring an outside security firm to even bi-annually confirm the security of our network. In short, Johnston, the city, and the public have no idea if our network is secure, but since it has nothing to do with installing conduit, why is it even in this document in the first place?

In 2017 Christopher Mitchell of Community Broadband Network made history in Bellingham by being the first person to ever present to our City Council, using video-conferencing software, in chambers, on the issue of community broadband. Since the city has millions of dollars invested in fiber, equipment, and staff, one wonders why this didn’t happen earlier, but I’ll move on. He gave an excellent overview of the advantages of public infrastructure following a presentation by the city’s policy analyst Mark Gardner on the same topic. In an underhanded attempt to make himself seem more legit, Eric Johnston referenced this meeting and said he is following Mitchell’s recommendations by producing this faux policy paper. I wrote to Mitchell to see how he felt about having his good name dragged through the mud to protect Johnston. His response was, “Yes, I would like to know what he is using to justify taking so little action.” Christopher Mitchell is one of the top experts on public broadband in the nation. He would never recommend such a useless policy, so why is Johnston saying that he did?

The policy goes on and on, attempting to justify the status quo, but suggests no plans for the future. It pretends that the city has been following “dig once-like practices” for decades, but we know the city intentionally and consistently misses opportunities to install conduit and fiber. Just in the last two years, and just off of the top of my head, they missed opportunities on Meridian, State Street, all around Fairhaven, on Lakeway, and more. Think of any time you noticed them digging up the road, that was most likely a missed opportunity to install conduit and fiber in the most efficient, beneficial manner possible.

I am happy to say that I’ve heard back from Hannah Stone and Michael Lilliquist so far. Please, contact the city before Monday and let them know that you expect them to do proper research before putting out a “policy update.” On top of all of this, Johnston is now using the soon-to-be-formed “Broadband Advisory Group” as a shield. While it is still unclear if the group will address Dig Once, Johnston says they “may have suggestions.” Still, as it stands right now, Dig Once and the Advisory Group are separate issues. So here we go again. There is nothing our Public Works Director won’t do to undermine progress on public broadband.

As I write this, it’s been about six months since our corona virus lockdown was announced. Most of our public buildings are hooked up to city fiber. They could all have been used to provide public broadband access, especially the schools. The libraries are the only entity that took action on this issue, and they largely had to rely on the generosity of the Friends of the Library organization and the state. Our city IT and Public Works departments did almost nothing to help. In fact, they didn’t consider broadband part of the pandemic response, even with our students going back to school this week and reporting to me that even on their overpriced “premium” big telecom connections they can hardly stay connected long enough for their teachers to take attendance in online classes. They are constantly experiencing other performance issues as well. Maybe I was raised differently than upper echelon city staff, but I was taught that when there is an emergency, you do what you can to help your community. The city has received offers from professionals like me to install hotspots and other gear, so it’s not a staffing issue. Why are they allowing our community to suffer when they can easily help?

Want to ask them? If you call Public Works right now, you will receive a voice mail telling you that they’re not taking calls. There are other questions I wonder about. Doesn’t Mayor Fleetwood need staff he can count on? Doesn’t he need to be able to trust they are working in the public interest without having to micro-manage them? Isn’t it obvious that we need a new Public Works director?

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Jon Humphrey is currently a music educator in Bellingham and very active in the community. He also has decades of professional IT experience including everything from support to development. He [...]

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